Monday, June 2, 2008

Richard Dawkins on the Founders

Now that my summer break has officially begun I have the freedom to read whatever I want, as opposed to reading the material assigned to me by my professors. Since I am a fan of religious history, one of my friends asked me to read the very popular (and controversial) book, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Though I do not support the ideas that Dawkins discusses, I still felt that it would be worth my time to al least read the book.

To my surprise, I discovered that Dawkins attempts to address the religious beliefs of our Founding Fathers in this book. He uses the founders to allegedly prove the fact that the early American elites (who were deeply effected by Enlightenment philosophy) were, in fact, purely Deists, Secularists and Atheists. Dawkins then attacks those of religious faith by suggesting that "The religious views of the Founding Fathers are of great interest to propagandists of today's American right, anxious to push their version of history." Dawkins continues his assault on the religious right by stating that,

"the founders most certainly were secularists who believed in keeping religion out of politics, and that is enough to place them firmly on the side of those who object, for example, to ostentatious displays of the Ten Commandments in government-owned public places. But it is tantalizing to speculate that at least some of the Founders might have gone beyond Deism. Might they have been agnostics or even out-and-out atheists?"

Though I agree with Dawkins when he mentions the fact that the religious right tends to "twist" history, I have to also recognize the fact that people like Dawkins (who are essentially the antithesis of individuals like David Barton and Peter Lillback) are also passionately pushing an agenda, which seeks to distort historical reality. The conclusions that Dawkins chooses to embrace are drawn from speculation and assumption. For example, Dawkins produces a number of famous quotations, which he believes clearly demonstrate the agnosticism of our Founders. From Jefferson, Dawkins quotes:

"To talk of immaterial existence is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say that they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise...without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence."

Dawkins states on page 60 of his book that, "Certainly [the founder's] writings on religion in their own time leave me no doubt that most of them would have been atheists in ours."
And from John Adams, Dawkins quotes:

"As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how as it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?"

For Dawkins, these (and other) quotations serve as ample evidence that America's founders were secularists at best, and atheists in all likelihood. These conclusions, however, ignore other historical evidence, which clearly shows that our founders (and Jefferson and Adams in this case) were in fact religious. For example, did Dawkins choose to ignore passages where Jefferson defines himself as a Christian? Did Dawkins overlook the historical records where Adams actually fought to have government-sanctioned religion in Massachusetts? These are hardly the actions of an Atheist.

In the end, I believe that Richard Dawkins (along with those opposing him in the religious communities of America) are simply picking and choosing the evidence, quotations and sources that best suit their respective agendas. I realize that I am not shedding light on anything new here. After all, historians have long criticized the ridiculous methods used on both sides. Sadly, this phenomenon is not likely to change, but if there is a positive to this story it is in the fact that people like Dawkins and Barton are likely to provide TRUE historians will plenty of ammunition in the years to come.


Brad Hart said...

Interesting post. I read "The God Delusion" a while back and also took note of the conclusions on the founders.

I agree that there is a custody battle going on over the legacy of the founders. It can be quite aggravating to hear extremists from both sides, as the spew their arguments. At the same time, I do love to hear what both have to say because it makes me even more convinced that the "sensible center" is where the truth really lies.

Anonymous said...

Dawkins has no business writing books, especially about history. Ridiculous!

Brian Tubbs said...

I like what Dinesh D'Souza says about Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is an example of what happens when you let a scientist out of the lab.

I read The God Delusion and was not impressed. I was ESPECIALLY unimpressed with his comments on the Founders - for the reasons that you cite.

Anonymous said...

A flaw in an otherwise nice work. Oh, and of course Jeffersion identified as a christian at one point but much of his work is deist in nature. It is no doubt that there were both "barely-believers" and strong christians amongst the founders.

Also, I'm shocked that anyone on this intelligent website would agree with anything that D'Souza would say. Shocking.